This is the week of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Summit), which is such an event that it gets its own release date: Saturday, December 4, with discs going on sale at 12:01am at select retailers. Expect Friday midnight release parties. I’m pretty cool to the cult of Twilight but this entry is an improvement over the insufferable second film. I reviewed it for MSN here. My colleagues at MSN reviewed Going the Distance (Warner) and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Disney) so I didn’t have to, and I review Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool on my blog here.
Knight and Day (Fox) – Tom Cruise plays to his strengths in this colorful spy fantasy, bouncing through as an unfailingly polite boy scout of a covert agent with a smooth-talking charm and ninja spy skills, and Cameron Diaz is the beautiful civilian who gets tangled up in his latest mission. Cruise’s Miller is a rogue CIA operative on a mission of honor, but his quest to rid the agency of the rot of corruption comes with a pretty high body count and the viewer just has to accept that every guy following orders to take him down is infected by the same rot to roll with the moral imperative that makes his actions all right.
It’s the Hitchcockian “wrong man” theme played as a Hollywood action lark, all momentum and spectacle and no mortal risk or moral confusion, and while director James Mangold is no Hitchcock, he at least understands that this globe-trotting, bullets-flying espionage conspiracy is pure fantasy and he embraces the outrageousness with a vengeance. So no, there’s no resonance or certainly no weight to the risks or relationships, but Cruise is perfectly cast and Diaz transforms from damsel in distress to partner in action with a confidence and glee that gives the fantasy its sparks. Too bad they never quite catch fire. Peter Sarsgaard play it straight as Cruise’s scheming nemesis and Paul Dano co-stars as a genius savant under Miller’s protection. Available in a single-disc DVD and a three-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo pack which also features a bonus digital copy, along with featurette and the usual BD-Live supplements.
The Sicilian Girl (Music Box), inspired by a true story, manages to combine mob opera with true crime to tell the story of Sicilian mob culture from the inside. Veronica D’Agostino plays Rita, the teenage daughter in a mob family plotting revenge against the rival crime boss who murdered her father, the local village Godfather that she has idealized in her memory (she was a little girl when he was assassinated). She is pure anger and righteous vengeance, married to her mob concept of retribution from within until the campaign kills her brother and puts her own life in jeopardy. That’s when she takes the detailed journal entries she kept as a child, a diary of the criminal web, and delivers them to the prosecutor in Palermo going after the mob, becoming their chief witness in the biggest government trial against the Cosa Nostra.
In this violent culture that took the life of her father and brother, her “betrayal” becomes a shameful thing to her mother because the truth reveals the corruption under the surface of criminal paternalism, the embarrassing reality of the family business. And that’s what makes this portrait so fascinating: the hypocrisy of the life that embraces a code of honor where you don’t rat and a culture where betrayal and murder is business as usual. They insist that their way of life is honorable, yet they bury and deny the truth—from themselves as much as to the rest of the world—because it contradicts the romantic lie of mob altruism in village life. Facing this reality is what enables Rita to break out of her cultural expectations of insular justice (a code designed to protect the criminal structure) and air out the dirty truths. It’s far more melodramatic than the epic Gomorrah, but its emotional approach effectively illustrates and communicates the insularity of the mob culture. Marco Amenta directs from a screenplay co-written by Sergio Donati, the old-school spaghetti western screenwriter who collaborated with Sergio Leone and wrote the classic Faccia a faccia and The Big Gundown. In Italian with English subtitles and a behind-the-scenes featurette.
Valhalla Rising (IFC) – Mads Mikkelsen is a silent Norseman gladiator named One Eye who escapes his captors and joins a band of warrior headed to the Crusades. Directed in moody and portentous strokes by Nicolas Winding Refn, this is the most abstract Viking movie you’ll ever see, a lonely portrait of a hostile environment and harsh existence, set against scrub hills, rocky shores and smothering clouds of fog and scored by howling winds and an atonal soundtrack. Not much action here but plenty of sudden, violent death and visions drenched in blood, plus a clever (if not quite surprising) narrative revelation in the final act. “He was brought up from hell,” explains his orphan sidekick, something of a herald for the mute force of brutal justice, and Refn seems to take that seriously. The little dialogue here is in English, most of it with a strong Irish accent. No supplements.
Hair High (Microcinema) – The films of animation maverick Bill Plympton are the handmade productions of an idiosyncratic artist in an industrial entertainment marketplace. Practically a one-man production studio, his jittery, sketchy style, colored pencil hues and weird, morphing figures of his shorts has earned him two Oscar nominations and a devoted following. His shorts showcase his talent for tweaked visual metaphors for awkward feelings and intense physical desires, limited only by his perverse imagination. His features, however, reveal his weakness: developing characters and telling stories. Hair High, his typically warped take on the rock and roll tragedies of young love thwarted in death found in such songs as “Last Kiss” and “Teen Angel” and “Leader of the Pack,” he adds a perverse streak and a zombie twist to the tropes of fifties high school innocence and Rebel Without a Cause teenage torment.
When Plympton lets his freak flag fly high—a smoker hacking up his intestines in a coughing fit, a hormonally overloaded teenager OD-ing on a horse aphrodisiac—Hair High delivers the same whacked-out weirdness of his shorts. The rest of film simply stretches out the simple premise and marks time between his ideas. Features the voices of Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Silverman, Eric Gilliland, Beverly D’Angelo and Keith Carradine. The 2004 feature is mastered in 4×3 letterbox format, which means that there are black bars on all sides of the image on widescreen monitors and it lacks the definition of an anamorphic master. Features commentary by Plympton, voice-over sessions and a video interview with Bill Plympton from “The Inkwell” among the supplements.
Fantasia / Fantasia 2000: Special Edition (Disney) – While the big-budget, live-action fantasy The Sorcerer’s Apprentice debuts on DVD and Blu-ray this week, the original animated classic gets a new DVD special edition and Blu-ray debut in a set with the Fantasia 2000 sequel/update. The 1940 Fantasia was Disney’s most ambitious production to date and perhaps more respected than loved, with conceptual animated accompaniment both playful and pretentious to iconic classical music pieces. While its fluid art and rich colors are still impressive 70 years later, it’s ironic that “Fantasia 2000” already feels dated, thanks to a reliance on CGI animation. It’s no coincidence that the best of the new batch a stylized hand-drawn short inspired by Al Hirschfeld designs and set to Gershwin (though I have a fondness for the yo-yoing flamingo, this film’s answer in miniature to the “Dance of the Hours” sequence in the original). The 2-disc DVD set features new lecture-style commentary on “Fantasia” by historian Brian Sibley and two new featurettes. The 4-disc special edition includes the two DVDs plus two Blu-ray editions that fill out the supplements with the commentary tracks from the previous “Legacy Collection” release, the 2003 short “Destino” (based on the designs Salvador Dali created for Disney) and the feature-length documentary Dali & Disney: A Date With Destino, plus interactive modes and BD-Live functions among the supplements.
Keeping with Disney theme, I review the documentary Walt & El Grupo (Disney), one of three interesting (if self-promoting) documentaries from and about Walt Disney Pictures released this week, at MSN here. (The others are Waking Sleeping Beauty and The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story.) Actually, four Disney docs debut this week if you count Dali & Disney: A Date With Destino from the Fantasia Blu-ray.
Also new this week: Cairo Time (MPI) with Patricia Clarkson, the documentary Floored (Typecast), the animation anthologies Looney Tunes Super Stars: Foghorn Leghorn and Friends – Barnyard Bigmouth (Warner) and Looney Tunes Super Stars: Tweety & Sylvester – Feline Fwenzy (Warner) and the animated comic book Iron Man – Extremis (Shout! Factory), adapted from the run of comics by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov.